Philip Cu Unjieng2 copy 245x300 - 50 years of learning nothing: Our new abnormal (XVI)
Philip Cu Unjieng

While my sister was compiling research material for her Assumption velada (and all Assumption alumni, and their husbands, will attest to just how seriously they take these veladas); she stumbled upon an archival photograph of the very first Earth Day, as celebrated in April of 1970 in Manhattan. A brainchild of then Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, a staunch environmentalist, it was meant to draw attention to the growing issue of pollution and the environment. That’s 50 years ago; and when my sister shared it on her FB page, it was too startling an image to let pass without comment.

I had the photo published here for two distinct reasons. One, that it’s downright uncanny how prophetic the 1970 world depicted is. If I hadn’t been told that it dates back to April 1970; other than the hippie-poncho look of the woman behind the children, it could very well have been a snapshot of what’s going on in the COVID-world of today. In almost any major city across the globe, you’d have kids wearing masks for safety, not practicing social distancing very well; and all these other pedestrians who refuse to wear mask and/or shields – defying the science, and the medical facts and data.

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Not a photo of New York’s Fifth Avenue taken this year, but an archival photo of the first Earth Day, held on April 22, 1970. 50 years ago, and scary prophetic, right? (Santi Visali/Getty Images)

The second reason is how it’s a sad indictment of us as a human race, that with fifty years and running, of warnings, dire predictions, and again, the inescapable facts of the science and data; we’re in a losing war against pollution and protecting the environment. If there is some Master of the Universe, and all the planets had to graded on how well they’ve been taking care of their gift of existence on what are essentially rocks spinning in the cosmos, I don’t doubt for an instant that we’d be the dunce in the class, stupidly proud of our failing grade, and in denial, insisting that we’re doing well.

If anything, this pandemic has actually given our planet something of a respite from the incessant carbon dioxide emissions and pollution; but at a great cost in terms of human lives, and living with the consequences of climate change and freakish weather. How many of you reading this were even alive in 1970? And to this day, we pay lip service to the notion of conserving the environment, leaving a legacy for our children and future generations – but watching the world do something about the situation only in starts and spurts. Or when the technology is actually available, discovering it’s far too expensive or can’t be replicated with economies of scale.

It’s not like those 50 years have been silent ones. The likes of Al Gore from Government, Sting from the music world, and Leonardo DiCaprio from the movie industry, have all been champions of the green cause. Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is considered one of the ‘Bibles’ on global warming. In 2018, Greta Thunberg, then only 15 years of age, popped into our zeitgeist with her impassioned plea that humanity is facing an existential crisis arising from climate change.

But is there really a concerted effort by Governments and nations to rationalize and ameliorate the predicament? During the recent 75th UN Anniversary, we even had the ironic spectacle of China leading the charge to go green. Ironic because they’re the biggest nation-producer of carbon dioxide emissions in the world. We can only hope they mean what they say.

I hear a lot of people talk about how if there is a silver lining, some important lesson learned, from this pandemic; it would be how we don’t really need that much in Life. A simpler, more basic approach to living, works just as well; as long as one has health and their loved ones on hand. But honestly, I wonder what would happen if all vestiges of community quarantines were lifted tomorrow, and the Coronavirus disappeared? Would those lessons stick? Or would we revert to pre-pandemic mode?

I mention this in passing because coupled with all the talk of the Simple Life, a lot of the older generation also brag about how the pandemic has forced them to be more tech-savvy, to be skilled in the WFH mode, and relying on Social Media for information and staying in touch with relatives & friends. The kids have been doing this for years now; so what’s happened is there’s an exponential growth in regular users of technology and social media.

Is that a good thing? You decide; as even pre-pandemic, Filipinos were already #1 in the ASEAN region and beyond for hours spent per day on a device – close to 10 hours. So somehow, there’s a contradiction in espousing this Simpler lifestyle, while more and more Filipinos are ‘touched’ by Social Media. And let’s face it, as the documentary, The Social Dilemma, explicitly laid out; Social Media is also about manipulation, about monetizing the platforms via predicting behavior and impulses – and ‘selling’ this data to their advertisers. As the documentary succinctly put it, ‘If the service is free, then you are the product.’

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